Lawmakers vote to require better responses by CT colleges to sexual assaults

On Jan. 30, women legislators stood together to announce the changes they wanted in law to improve college responses to sexual assaults.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

On Jan. 30, women legislators stood together to announce the changes they wanted in law to improve college responses to sexual assaults.

The state House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would ensure that colleges and universities provide free counseling services when a student reports she has been sexually assaulted, regardless of where the incident took place.

“As far as I am concerned, it doesn’t matter where it took place if a student is involved,” Rep. Roberta Willis, House chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said during an interview after the chamber unanimously adopted the bill.

The bill, expected to be approved by the Senate, also requires both public and private colleges and universities to take a number of new steps to ensure student safety on campus. The schools must:

  • Provide annual prevention and awareness programs for all students and higher education employees;
  • Give “concise notification, written in plain language” of students’ rights to seek disciplinary action against their perpetrator and of the free health and counseling services available to them;
  • Sign agreements with a community-based sexual assault crisis service and a domestic violence agency so students can access help for free, either on or off campus;
  • Educate campus police, other first responders and safety personnel on how to respond when a student makes an allegation of sexual assault or domestic violence;
  • Give the legislature an annual report of its sexual assault policies, the number and type of risk reduction programs taking place for students and staff, the number of incidents of sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking, the number of disciplinary cases at the institution related to sexual assault and the final outcomes of those cases.

The legislation, co-sponsored by every woman legislator in the General Assembly, responds to a federal lawsuit and complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education by a group of current and past students at the state’s flagship campus last fall. The students alleged that the university had shown “deliberate indifference” when they came forward to say they had been sexually assaulted or harassed. Two of those UConn students had been assaulted off-campus.

“We also have this piece of legislation before us today because of the brave current and former students at the University of Connecticut who came forward last fall and told their stories,” Rep. Mae Flexer, a Danielson Democrat and UConn graduate, said on the House floor before the vote. “I want to thank them for bringing this issue to the forefront once again and helping us get to this day in the House of Representatives.”

Over the past five years, 7,166 complaints from college students across the country have been filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about how a  college or university handled sexual harassment, violence and other sex discrimination issues. Just five of those complaints were made by UConn students, including the most recent, which has drawn so much attention to UConn’s policy and its treatment of assault victims.

A spokesman for UConn said school officials “fully support” the legislation.

“We share the commitment shown by the Connecticut legislature to address the critical issue of sexual violence on college campuses in the state of Connecticut. Sexual assault needs to be confronted directly as we collectively work to prevent this crime from taking place and to provide victims with the resources they need,” Tom Breen wrote in an emailed statement.

The House bill seeks to improve how all higher education institutions in Connecticut respond when a student comes forward, and to boost prevention through bystander training akin to the “see something, say something” campaign.

Willis said she expects the number of people coming forward and to report being assaulted will go up if this bill becomes law.

“Hopefully we’ll see an increase because students will know there will be a compassionate response and appropriate disciplinary action” against the perpetrator, Willis said.

Willis said the stories she’s heard from students at schools across the state about how their cases were handled by university staff was deplorable, leaving legislators with a clear picture that something needed to change.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he has not yet decided whether he supports the legislation.

“As a parent and someone whose wife spent years working with victims of sexual assault, the Governor has been an outspoken advocate of sexual assault prevention and response procedures. As with any bill at this stage, the Governor will continue to monitor its progress as it goes through the legislative process,” said Samaia M. Hernandez.

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